Schadenfreude for Google

The New York Times published an article titled “Google Finds It Hard to Reinvent Philanthropy” (the Jester thanks Bill Thies for forwarding). The Schadenfreude in the title permeates the entire article, and the Jester will join in the Freude. Not so much because an entity with deep pockets failed to do something good for the world (that would only merit Traurigkeit), but because that entity started it all with so much hubris… perhaps the greatest sin of international development. Larry Page wanted to “eclipse Google itself in terms of overall world impact,” and to somehow do it with only 1% of its profits.  

The Jester Googles just like anyone else, and has few doubts about the company’s smarts as a technology company. The Jester’s previous employer viewed Google as a competitor, and so he had reason to keep an eye on Google’s attempts to engage the poorer parts of the developing world.

The Jesterial conclusion is that Google’s strength as a Silicon Valley juggernaut is exactly its weakness in the developing world, and this is a lesson not just for Google, but for other technology companies. Google has a tendency to see everything as a technology problem. Lawrence Simon, a Brandeis professor who is quoted in the NYT article, puts it perfectly: “They were looking for something like a new algorithm — but there isn’t any algorithm that’s going to eradicate guinea worm.” Google, however, persists in the illusion: The title on reads, “Technology-Driven Philanthropy.”

Anyone (that may include the reader) who thinks the differences between the developed and developing world can be solved through engineering is overlooking a very obvious flaw with that thesis: The world already has all of the technology it needs for the developed part of it to be developed. The problem isn’t that poor people need culturally appropriate climate control systems. The problem is that the ability to acquire, produce, support, and capitalize on technology is unequally distributed in the world. It’s not a technological challenge, any more than the uneven distribution of gold in the world is an alchemy challenge. (And, the Jester hasn’t even mentioned physical and infrastructural problems, which are decidedly not challenges of bits.)

The corollary of Google’s techno-fetishism is that the company abhors paying for non-creative-class human labor. Google has succeeded in the developed world largely by hyper-automation, by removing or avoiding human labor as much as possible. It all started with Page Rank, which brilliantly recognized that people’s ideas of webpage importance were already embedded in the hyperlink structure of the web, and that that knowledge could be automatically crawled and analyzed. This inclination also explains Google’s beta-itis, where products are left in trial state for centuries. What better way to keep customer service costs low? Even when it does have to pay humans, like the ones who monitor illegitimate content on YouTube, it does so with shame and secrecy.

In the developing world, though, this tendency is the exact opposite of what is required. Google’s attempts to win more eyeballs in poor rural areas, for example, consistently try to bypass intermediary human beings in the communication chain, whether it is delivering health information by SMS in Uganda or setting up rural announcement boards in India. But, as readers of the Jester know, information isn’t the bottleneck! (As proof of that thesis, note that Google’s one attempt to work with live human intermediaries was a telecenter project. If the world’s supposedly smartest company can’t be bothered to learn from the vast critical literature on telecenters, then what chance does an undereducated wage worker have with information dribbling in over SMS?)

Even where information is immediately helpful, it still requires human mediators in the “last mile” who can establish trust relationships, work the human-computer interface, manage cash if necessary, and possibly even provide a little education. That would mean hiring human labor, though, and Google doesn’t want that line item. (Meanwhile, a clever service called “Just Dial” in India uses a variation of Google’s revenue-sharing business model, but over voice calls and with a human-operated call center. Just Dial has turned it into a useful, lucrative business.)

As a result of its developed-world attitude to solving developing-world problems, Google has taken to offering what the Jester calls “thin technology” in the vain hope that just putting good software in the cloud will transform the developing world. Thin technology is technology that isn’t thickly integrated into a working institution. It’s mobile search without trained healthcare workers who can interpret medical information for undereducated patients. It’s Google apps for schools without any attempt to support teachers, administrators, or students. It’s crisis response tools without crisis response teams. To the extent that thin technology is for a world that uses Google and Gmail, some of it might be useful. But, that’s not the vast majority of the developing world.

So, what should Google, or any technology company, do? Strategically, here are the Jester’s recommendations:

  • Ringfence resources, so that the company’s primary business considerations don’t influence what is done. Specify the budget up front, then don’t touch.
  • Allow for a separate goal and strategy. In another technology company the Jester is intimately familiar with, one DotOrg-like group couldn’t decide whether they were philanthropy or business or PR or incubator. Pulled among different objectives, they had difficulty achieving any of them, and the group folded.
  • Disregard mumbo-jumbo about fortunes at the bottom of the pyramid or eradicating poverty through profits. If revenue is the goal, don’t bother with the poor world. Even if revenue flowed in, it will be by profiting from poor people. Is that the real intent? (For more, see the Jester’s post on the BOP.)
  • Emphasize impact over scale. Scaling something with impact makes sense, but shooting for scale before impact is confirmed is pointless, and possibly evil in development, where resources are scarce.
  • If any of the above don’t appeal, stay out of the game. Match employee donations, sure, but don’t pretend to do good while “increasing shareholder value.”

Next, more tactically…

  • Recognize that a technology company’s biggest asset isn’t its technology. It’s its people. What the world needs is more people nurturing, and less technology to solve their problems. Send out engineers to train engineers, managers to mentor managers. Etc.

The Jester doesn’t believe that providing technology solutions is effective in long-term development. In the end, it’s just another kind of charity — instead of giving money, it’s giving technology. However, the Jester is fully aware that technologists desperately want to prove their ingenuity. (Why they aren’t excited about mentoring others to be brilliant is beyond the Jester.) If this is the case…

  • Find organizations that are already effective. (Note here that “well-known” doesn’t necessarily mean “effective.” Any fool can have good PR.) Partner with them in the full, messy sense of the word. Thoroughly understand what they do and see whether anything can be done to contribute to their goals. Technology amplifies existing intent and capacity.
  • Set up (pro-bono?) consulting services for any tools built. Free software is useless to most non-profit organizations unless it comes with training, engineering, and support.

Not a lot to excite a profit-maximizing CEO, alas, but any CEO with real intent in philanthropy should consider pulling a Bill Gates: drop the technology job and move to philanthropy full-time.

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3 Responses to “Schadenfreude for Google”

  1. pma4d Says:

    o jester,

    the nyt article indeed shows a depressing picture. reading between the lines, though, one might see a slightly different dynamic then techno-fetishism – an organization that is good at XYZ that perceives development as a largely failed exercise to date, and wants to sort out what it can bring to the table given what it is and what it understands. one might see the gates foundation as attempting to bring a generic form of corporate engineering discipline and focus to the problems it is addressing. one gets the impression that google perceived the old dotorg as just another teat for NGOs and reverted it to its core google model of providing free tools because that is what management groks. in the latter case it’s not necessarily that management thinks that tech actually solves the entire problem, but that as techies they’re not going to get into the business of deciding which human-centric NGO is the right one – the right one is the one that’s got staff smart enough to figure out how to use google tools to succeed.

    one could go way out on a limb and take that last bit a lot further in the social darwinist/ayn rand direction. but without actually having worked for google it would just be mean to do so…

    • Jester Says:

      The Jester thanks you for your comment!

      The Jester agrees with what you’re saying, but would nevertheless label *that* techno-fetishism. Techno-fetishists are people, too — they have internally and historically valid reasons for what they do, and no doubt have fantastic rationalizations built up. Yet, that doesn’t change the fact that in their worldview, every problem can be fixed with a technology solution.

      Your post brings up another point, though, with which the Jester disagrees. The issue is actually not of smarts, but of wisdom. As to the difference, the Jester plans to say more in future posts.

      • pma4d Says:

        all i’m saying is that you *don’t* necessarily have to have what you are calling the techno-fetishist worldview that technology alone solves every problem (i’m just rolling with your definition here) to decide to focus on technology alone. to get there, you just have to acknowledge that you aren’t any good at the other things necessary for direct impact, and then emotionally accept that a hypothetical, partial, indirect contribution is ok. this kind of imaginary division of labor is a pretty straightforward variation of the rationalization behind doing academic research when you aren’t making any attempts to have direct impact yourself. the reason to be clear on this is because in that case, telling people “UR DOIN IT WRONG” isn’t ever going to have an effect – it’s not naivete, it’s a form of selective indifference.

        that said, if you’re really claiming based on personal experience that google management actually has the simplistic worldview described, well, i can’t speak to that…

        also, in case it’s not obvious from the tone i’ve been using, i don’t agree with the approach myself, or the bit about smart people.

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